My original plan for this series of posts has been somewhat lost since I originally formulated it about six weeks ago, but my general goal for my blog as a whole, and indeed for my work as a writing coach, dissertation coach, and editor, is to help people become better writers, so it’s pretty easy to fit something else in that heading (indeed, there’s some question as to whether I shouldn’t just drop the whole “how to become a better writer” title). And, given that I personally write and strive to become a better writer, I’m often thinking about how I can become a better writer, and so have ideas that can be translated into a blog post on the subject of becoming a better writer.
The past several days, I was working on the copy-edited files for my upcoming book, and one of the things that I was dealing with was with working past criticism. On the one hand, I was dealing with the criticism of the copy-editor, which, admittedly, was not about content, and was pretty easy to deal with. And on the other, I was dealing with my own internal criticism, which was somewhat wider-ranging, and was rather more difficult. But whether your own internal criticism or the criticism of others, if you want to become a better writer, you have to learn to work through criticism. If building skill depends on practice, then criticism cannot be allowed to break that practice.
Different purposes for different writers
There are varied reasons to write: some people might write just for their personal satisfaction, others might write for fame, and others might write because their careers demand it. Different kinds of writing will expose you to different kinds of criticism. The better you understand your reasons for writing, the easier it is to deal with criticism that is irrelevant to your writing.
For example, if you’re writing for the therapeutic value of writing and exploring your thoughts, then criticism regarding your spelling and punctuation are mostly irrelevant to your purpose. Spelling and punctuation are conventions that are used to help writers communicate with others, but if your intention is to use writing to evoke ideas and work through them, then you may understand yourself sufficiently without the least concern for the formal conventions.
Or, for example, I’m writing a blog generally aimed at highly educated writers who are seeking advanced degrees, so criticism that my sentences are relatively complex might be misplaced. I choose this example because I have an SEO plugin for my blog that always tells me that my writing will do poorly in search engines because the sentences are too long and the text too difficult. (According to the SEO plugin, this post scores poorly on the Flesch Reading Ease test, and it also has sections, paragraphs, and sentences that are too long.) I recognize that criticism and work past it. But, to me at least, that criticism seems off-base, because the people I want to appreciate my writing are people of high intelligence and competence. (Admittedly, I’m not sure about this being the right course of action—after all, if the search engine won’t rank me, then no intelligent, competent people will even learn that I have written.)
Knowing your purpose in writing is valuable in working past criticism because it helps you ignore criticism that isn’t suited to your purpose.
Self-criticism can be paralyzing. Too much self-doubt and projects get abandoned. As I worked on the draft of my manuscript this past week, I was constantly battling with the sense that I had not done enough or that I should have done something better. These thoughts were a significant drain on my energy and limited progress. Instead of just checking to make sure that the copy-editor had not missed anything or introduced any new mistakes, I pondered over sentence after sentence, and paragraph after paragraph, wondering how much to change, and how much I could change (the publisher had explicitly stated that changes should be kept minimal). These internal debates raged as I moved through each chapter, bemoaning the work that realistically was that outcome of years of effort on my part, not to mention several different reviews of different drafts, so it’s not as if that manuscript over which I was so tortured had never gotten any support. To be sure, my book has flaws. It also has strengths.
One particular difficulty in the moment of editing is that you are looking for problems at a very granular level. My book isn’t really about details, but rather about big core ideas. Looking for problems, especially at the level of sentences or paragraphs, simply isn’t very sensitive to larger-scale issues like narrative flow or overall argument (where I believe/hope my strengths lie) because the attention is focused on finding small-scale problems. Emotionally speaking, the editing process forces a focus on weaknesses, not strengths, which can sap the necessary confidence to keep working.
Criticism from others
Criticism from others can also be paralyzing, especially if it links into self-criticism. Whether the criticism concerns something you already see as a weakness or something about which you feel pride (or something in between), it can trigger significant doubt about the ability to progress and reach a satisfactory conclusion.
In some ways, it’s easier to deal with criticism from others than self-criticism, if only because it’s sometimes easier to ignore or dismiss what others have said. When I get feedback from other people, I always ask myself whether they’re right or not, at least at a granular level, with respect to specific concerns. (If someone dismisses my work out of hand, I’m not particularly inclined to worry about that—it’s usually a waste of time trying to please someone who won’t be pleased. Sometimes it can’t be avoided, however, and that’s one reason feedback can be more difficult than self-criticism—more on that below.) When I get detailed feedback, I have generally find that some of it is really helpful, some of it difficult but helpful, and some of it less helpful or even wrong. I know that I have made mistakes when giving feedback to other people, and I know that people have made mistakes in giving me feedback. So, in processing feedback, I try to sort out the stuff that I do want to use from that which I don’t. And that sorting allows greater equanimity in dealing with the feedback—it’s less of a challenge to my confidence (and even a boost to my confidence, sometimes) to see the feedback focuses on things that can be easily fixed.
Of course, as I suggested above, one of the difficulties in receiving feedback from others is that there are times when you simply cannot avoid it. If you’re a student and your professor insists on something, you’re pretty much stuck. If an editor at a journal or publishing house insists on something, you’re not quite as stuck, but there’s a compelling reason to deal with it, especially if finding a publisher or journal that will accept your work is not a matter to be taken for granted. It can be very difficult to try to do something that is outside your vision for your work.
The emotional barriers are pretty high, but finishing work depends on getting past those sticking points. In the effort to become a better writer, practice is central. And the crucial first factor in any practice is the actual engagement and effort involved. As a writer, that means working even in the face of criticism. There is a necessary perseverance for the writer who wants to get better. This, more than anything else, is the crucial step. Undoubtedly, it’s better to be able to learn from criticism and to use that criticism to keep growing: by hearing, understanding, and adapting to criticism, your practice and your efforts are guided and directed. But even if you just ignore criticism and keep working, that will help you become a better writer. An undirected, sloppy practice whose only discipline in its regularity is still a better road to improvement than a highly structured but irregular practice. Within reason, anyway. I’m not sure how to measure this at the margins: is a highly structured practice carried out for 3 hours a week better than a loose practice carried out 4 hours a week? I can’t be sure when comparing such small differences in practice. But I’m pretty confident that a sloppy practice for one hour a day, seven days a week, is going to do more for skill than a highly disciplined practice for two hours each Saturday with nothing on the other days. And for that reason, I place such a high value on working past criticism including, criticism of one’s own practice schedule: better to practice badly than not practice at all.
A long time ago, I read about a empirical study that had followed a group of people developing skill (I can’t give a citation; can’t remember the source; and don’t want to go looking right now), which basically found that the people who accurately assessed their work were less likely to develop skill over a longer period than those who over-estimated the quality of their performance. The primary difference was that those who over-evaluated themselves did more work because of their (over)confidence. We could say that the people who faced the least self-criticism did the best. But, ideally, practitioners learn from self-criticism, thus refining their ability by responding to their various strengths and weaknesses. Which means that to really excel, you need both the criticism to guide and refine your work, and the ability to work past criticism to continue your pursuit of your goal to produce a good written work, and also to become a better writer.